Dentists and psychologists say hectic lifestyle possible culprit of teeth grinding

Worn down teeth, sagging facial skin and enlargement of the facial muscles – particularly the jowls – are all unpleasant symptoms resulting from bruxism, more commonly known as teeth grinding.

Bruxism is the involuntary and chronic grinding or clenching of the teeth. It usually happens during sleep, but has also been known to occur while awake.

 Commonly associated with high stress, anxiety, and other extreme emotions, incidents of bruxism appear to be on the rise. Many fingers point to our increasingly stressful lifestyles and the incredibly fast-paced nature of our modern world.

According to dental assistant Christine Willis: “(Bruxism), although not being life threatening, is certainly life altering. It can, in fact, devastate its victim.” 

Although the exact cause of teeth grinding is unknown, emotional and Illustration by Olivia Grecuphysical risk factors may increase one’s chance of suffering from the disorder. Willis says people with “stress and anxiety, (or) abnormal alignment of the teeth or jaws,” have an increased risk of being teeth grinders.

A few more risk factors include chronic anxiety, extremely aggressive personality, drug or alcohol abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and prior facial, oral, or head trauma. Having a family member who suffers from teeth grinding may also increase one’s own risk.

Who does it affect?

Willis, who has been employed with Dr. David Sawka at the Cochrane Dental Centre for the past 10 years, says teeth grinding can affect people of any age group, including children. However, it “is most common in the 25-44 year age group.”

Sometimes the contributing factors can be environmental. In a recent study, Italian researchers linked second hand smoke exposure to bruxism in children: exposure to second hand smoke increases a child’s chance for sleep apnea, and sleep apnea is in turn often associated with severe cases of bruxism.

“Bruxism that is not treated may result in gum damage, loss of natural teeth, and jaw-related disorders,” Willis says. However, there are courses of treatment that may help control and alleviate the damaging effects of teeth grinding.

“Medication is only recommended for short-term use,” Willis says.

“Your dentist may recommend a protective mouth appliance, such as a night guard, that can absorb the pressure of constant night grinding.”

How is bruxism treated?

Bruxism causes teeth to get brittle, causing them to fracture and falling apart. Often a dentist will recommend the use of a mouth guard to protect the teeth.

Photo by Olivia GrecuSome medications that can be prescribed for teeth grinding include muscle relaxants, sleeping-aids and – in severe cases – Botox injections. Other measures may involve orthodontic intervention.

“Often (bruxism) is diagnosed from a psychological component,” says Dr. Cory Hrushka, a psychologist with Insight Psychological – which has locations in Calgary, Red Deer and Edmonton. “(It’s) stress induced teeth grinding.”

“Hypnosis has been found to significantly decrease levels of (grinding),” Hrushka says. He also listed relaxation training, meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy and stress management therapy as possible treatment courses.

If these treatments seem extreme, they are little compared to the possible results of bruxism.

“Usually you grind the teeth and what happens is you start putting micro cracks in (them) and your teeth become more brittle,” Hrushka says.

“If your teeth get brittle they start fracturing and falling apart. Often a dentist will put in a mouth guard.”

Real-life teeth grinding

This is what happened to Calgarian Gwen Northam, who was diagnosed with TMJ in her 20’s.

TMJ refers to the temporomandibular joint, but the abbreviation is commonly used to refer to temporomandibular joint disorder, which results in symptoms ranging from ear pain to head-and-jaw aches. Teeth clenching and grinding are two of the main factors connected with TMJ and they often go hand-in-hand.

“I was told I was clenching and grinding my teeth at night,” Northam says. “I was given a night splint by my dentist.”

It has been several years since Northam was diagnosed. “I used to have clicking in my jaw and occasional TMJ pain,” she says, “but that is resolved.”

“Bruxism is part of a subconscious behavior,” Hrushka says. “People don’t realize they’re doing it. “(Bruxism) can occur during waking hours or during sleep.”

Hrushka acknowledged that mouth guards can help, though “patients may still grind their teeth, it’s just on a piece of plastic.” It may be good to consider psychological treatment as well as dental, and treat the cause of bruxism along with the symptoms.

ogrecu@cjournal.ca